Arrow Heads Vol. 15: Tobe Hooper’s EATEN ALIVE (1977)

Arrow Heads — Arrow Video, a subsidiary of Arrow Films, humbly describe themselves as merely a “Distributor of classic, world, cult and horror cinema on DVD & Blu-ray”. But we film geeks know them as the Britain-based bastion of the brutal and bizarre, boasting gorgeous Blu-ray releases with high quality artwork and packaging and bursting with extras (often their own productions). Their collector-friendly releases had traditionally not been available in the U.S, but now Arrow has come across the pond and this column is devoted to discussing their weird and wonderful output.

“If you ever take us to a hotel like this, I will kick your butt.”

My wife made me this promise as we watched an attractive but timid woman named Clara (Roberta Collins) check into the small, dilapidated, inexplicably swamp-located Starlight Hotel. As it turns out, the dilapidated establishment is run by a murderous and sexually frustrated proprietor named Judd (Neville Brand). My wife didn’t stick around for the rest of the movie, so that observation summed up her assessment of Tobe Hooper’s Eaten Alive, a bizarre stinker which was also released under a flurry of alternate titles like Death Trap, Starlight Slaughter, Murder on the Bayou, and Horror Hotel (the last of which confusingly — and amusingly — also served as an alias for British Christopher Lee film The City Of The Dead).

Judd’s hotel sits directly on a dank black pond, where he keeps his pet crocodile. After flying into a rage and offing the poor girl, he disposes of her body by delivering her to the croc’s rubbery maw. A short while later, a few more guests check in — a bickering couple (William Finley and Marilyn Burns) and their young daughter, a rowdy hick and his hook-up for the night (Robert Englund and Janus Blythe), and most importantly the father and sister of the murdered Clara (Mel Ferrer and Crystin Sinclaire), seeking information about her whereabouts. Each of these guests finds themselves in some way or another a victim of Judd’s scythe-wielding, croc-feeding, deeply misogynistic ways, which leads the viewer to wonder if he’s suddenly snapped on this night, or been in the murder biz for years — and if the latter, why he’s not been investigated (don’t hold out for any answers).

The grotesque Eaten Alive was Hooper’s next film after the seminal breakout hit The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which enjoys a reputation as one of the greatest horror films of all time. Once again, Hooper found inspiration in a real-life serial killer to use as the basis for his misanthropic villain. Anticipation ran high for his follow-up, which saw a substantial cast upgrade that included known and semi-known thespians which also included Carolyn Jones and Stuart Whitman as the local cathouse matron and sheriff. Also of note; Robert Englund opens the film with a famous line of dialogue — famous not because of this movie, but because Tarantino later borrowed it for Kill Bill.

Judd’s swamp hotel is shot entirely on a staged environment, giving the film a distinct artificiality which, combined with the often eerie lighting, adds to its surrealism. My wife’s aversion to the squalid house is certainly not unfounded, which is to the movie’s credit. It’s pretty grimy. Every aspect of Eaten Alive is literally and figuratively covered in a layer of filth. It also maintains the hazy 16mm aesthetic of Texas Chain Saw, despite being shot on 35mm.

The bulk of the film — possibly all of it — takes place within a single night, and without any indicators of the actual time, gives an eerie and deeply nocturnal feeling of being awake all night with these characters. The exteriors are at times bathed in harsh crimson lighting, which I guess is supposed to be from the hotel’s signage. This is a pretty stark contrast to Texas Chain Saw, which was shot on real locations with lots of daytime, outdoor exteriors. Also contributing to this environment is the sound — a mix of swamp noise, moody soundscape scoring, and the tinny country western music emanating from Judd’s radio.

This mood is thickly palpable, and that’s not always a benefit. Despite clocking in at about 90 minutes, the languid pacing, loose plot (“redneck murders customers”), and early-AM haze create a tiring sensation. Even with its violence and gratuitous sleaze, the film ultimately feels like a grind. My feeling was only mildly favorable on the first watch, on this recent rewatch I felt even less enthused.

Eaten Alive is a bad movie, but also a weirdly fascinating one, particularly for Tobe Hooper fans (of which I count myself one). One of the more amusing extras on the disc is a gallery of screener comment cards, most of which eviscerate the film mercilessly. I can’t disagree with them. But it has its charms, too. There’s some crazy artistry in this mess, even if the croc looks at times like a comically undersized hand puppet.

The Package

Eaten Alive is now available in a 2-disc Blu-ray and DVD combo pack from Arrow Video. Like most Arrow titles, it features a booklet and reversible cover, packed in 14mm clear case.

Special Features and Extras

Arrow’s presentation of Eaten Alive includes new materials in addition to features from Dark Sky’s previous special edition DVD release.

Intro by Tobe Hooper

New Interviews

Blood On The Bayou (14:03)
 An interview with director Tobe Hooper.

Gator Bait (11:38)
 An interview with actress Janus Blythe. Blythe discusses her experience on the film (including the disappoint of not working with Tobe Hooper directly, and a humorous memory about watching the film theatrically), as well as her other roles in The Hills Have Eyes, The Incredible Melting Man, and The Janus Blythe Show.

Monsters And Metaphors — (5:18)
 An interview with hair and makeup artist Craig Reardon.

Archive Interviews

The Gator Creator (19:38)
 with director Tobe Hooper

My Name Is Buck (15:05)
 With actor Robert Englund

Five Minutes With Marilyn Burns (5:18)

The Butcher Of Elmendorf (23:05)
 Short documentary on Joe Ball, a Texas serial killer who served as the inspiration for the film. Ball kept six gators in a pond and almost certainly used them to dispose of his victims’ bodies.

The disc includes several trailers, sporting some of the multiple titles created to try to market the film.

Death Trap — Green Band (1:06)
Death Trap — Red Band (2:10)
Eaten Alive — Green Band (1:12)
Eaten Alive — Red Band (2:14)
Starlight Slaughter (2:43)
Horror Hotel (1:42)
Death Trap — “Devil’s Swamp” Japanese Trailer (2:28)

TV and Radio Spots

Starlight Slaughter TV Spot 1 (0:36)
Starlight Slaughter TV Spot 2 (0:36)
Eaten Alive TV Spot 1 (0:37)
Eaten Alive TV Spot 2 (1:05)

Alternate Credits (1:05)


Behind The Scenes Slideshow (8:09)
Stills & Promo Material
Comment Cards

Audio commentary
With co-writer and producer Mardi Rustam, make-up artist Craig Reardon, and stars Roberta Collins, William Finley and Kyle Richards

A/V Out.

Get it at Amazon:
Eaten Alive — Arrow Video Blu-ray + DVD

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